Thursday, August 04, 2011

A Reply To My Dear Engineer Friend On Art :)

Me: "I think art should try to be about more than just what meets the EYE."

My Dear Engineer Friend Who Enjoys Art:
“This is where I think we disagree -
if I want to be challenged in the way I think, I'll read a book.
if I want to be entertained through my ears, I'll go to a concert

There are different types of art for different senses.
But if visual art is not visually appealing - then is it art?”

I have decided to respond to my Dear Engineer Friend more formally in this more public forum, because I think the conversation he and I are having speaks to much more than just the conversation he and I are having. So my response to him ensues. Now that the scene has been set, I’ll just jump into it:

I'm not saying the visual arts shouldn't be visually appealing. They have another name, you know. The PLASTIC arts. We think of plastic as a material used to make contemporary crap. But that speaks to my point....

From, on “plastic”:
6. capable of being molded or of receiving form: clay and other plastic substances.
7. produced by molding: plastic figures.
1625–35; 1900–10 for def. 1; < Latin plasticus that may be molded < Greek plastikós. See -plast, -ic

4. easily influenced; impressionable: the plastic minds of children
5. capable of being moulded or formed
6. fine arts
a. of or relating to moulding or modelling: the plastic arts
b. produced or apparently produced by moulding: the plastic draperies of Giotto's figures
7. having the power to form or influence: the plastic forces of the imagination
8. biology of or relating to any formative process; able to change, develop, or grow: plastic tissues
9. of or relating to plastic surgery

[C17: from Latin plasticus relating to moulding, from Greek plastikos, from plassein to form]

In fact, prior to modernity, the plastic arts were more often referred to as such. Only after modernity did they come to be thought of as the visual arts. And in fact, with the idea of what plastic really means, music would actually also be a plastic art. Although it wasn't referred to as such, at least not as often, so far as I know. The end product isn't something that the body or senses can grasp in the same way as a painting, building or sculpture. You can't walk around it, take it in, think about it, ect. Music leaves its traces on your memory and mind in a much different way, and you approach it differently. It is, however, still "plastic," in the sense described above. In terms of giving form to the formless. Of molding and modelling. Of giving order. The maker still has an image, a model, in mind, to which he is trying to give representation with the end product.

All of that is background information necessary before I can even begin to frame my response or answer. The framing of my response, then, is made of what will, I think, in the context of this conversation, become a re-contextualization of art, or a re-imaging of what art is and how it is “experienced.” The framing of my answer is also partially made of the history of western art.

A piece of art is a made thing or, rather, a thing being made. Its really that simple, and yet it gets quite complex. No thing is ever made without the mind. As mentioned, the one who gives order or form to something has an image or model in his mind to which he is giving representation with the end product. In turn, the end product then shapes the mind of one who experiences the piece of art. It gives form to the audience’s image of the world. You could also say, however, that the end product doesn’t stop being formed when the original maker puts it into the world as a made thing. Every time the audience experiences it, it is interpreted, and thus is reshaped, reformed, given meaning. The audience becomes a participant in the becoming of that product. The audience participates in what the made thing becomes in the world.

All this is to say two things. For one, art is PLASTIC. Two, you can’t really separate “art” from “reading a book,” categorizing “art” as stimulating the senses, while the “reading a book” stimulates the mind. They are both inherently intertwined. Art and the mind were just discussed. And your intellectual experience of reading a book would have no meaning or message to you without a whole system of signs that were given meaning by experiences in the sensible world. On top of that, a book, too, is a made thing. Someone shaped it, gave form and order to it as something that would have coherent meaning to others in the world. It becomes a body of thought and enters the realm of textual discourse that – hey, shapes – the world.

You also really can’t separately categorize arts that stimulate the eye, ear, or mind. In which category does architecture belong? Or film!? Ballet: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”? John Cage’s “In a Landscape” is a piece of music! Similarly, any piece of “visual” art (painting or sculpture) that doesn’t have good RHYTHM or HARMONY (attributes usually given to musical works) not only won’t hold together well as a work of art (that has been given form, shape and order) but it will be downright ugly. The same goes for film, actually!

Now, to speak more specifically to a question of VISUAL art, I need to address the history of Western art. I defer here to Marshall McLuhan:

The dominant organ of sensory and social orientation in pre-alphabet societies was the ear – ‘hearing was believing.’ The phonetic alphabet forced the magic world of the ear to yield to the neutral world of the eye. Man was given an eye for an ear.

Western history as shaped for some three thousand years by the introduction of the phonetic alephbet, a medium that depends solely on the eye for comprehension. The alphabet is a construct of fragmented bits and parts which have no semantic meaning in themselves, and which must be strung together in a line, bead-like, and in a prescribed order. Its use fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environment in visual and spatial terms – particularly in terms of a space and of a time that are uniform,

The line, the continuum
-this sentence is a prime example-

became the organizing principle of life….

Visual space is uniform, continuous, and connected. The rational man in our Western culture is a visual man. The fact that most conscious experience has little ‘visuality’ in it is lost on him…

Until writing was invented, man lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog…

Whence did the wond’rous mystic art arise,
Of painting SPEECH, and of speaking to the eyes?
That we by tracing magic lines are taught,
How to embody, and to color THOUGHT?

Printing, a ditto device confirmed and extended the new visual stress. It provided the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly line – mass production. It created the portable book, which men could read in privacy and in isolation from others. Man could now inspire – and conspire.

Like easel painting, the printed book added much to the new cult of individualism. The private, fixed point of view became possible and literacy conferred the power of detachment, non-involvement.

The Renaissance Legacy.
The Vanishing Point = Self-effacement,
The Detached Observer.
No Involvement!

The viewer of Renaissance art is systematically placed outside the frame of experience. A piazza for everything and everything in a piazza.

The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible.

Art, or the graphic translation of a culture, is shaped by the way space is perceived. Since the Renaissance the Western artist perceived the environment primarily in terms of the visual. Everything was dominated by the eye of the beholder. His conception of space was in terms of a perspective projection upon a plane surface consisting of formal units of special measurement. He accepted the dominance of the vertical and the horizontal – of symmetry – as an absolute condition of order. This view is deeply embedded in the consciousness of Western art.

Primitive art and pre-alphabet people integrate time and space as one and live in an acoustic, horizonless, boundless, olfactory space, rather than in visual space. Their graphic presentation is like an x-ray. Thay put in everything they know, rather than only what they see. A drawing of a manmn hunting a seal on an ice floe will show not only what is on top of the ice, but what lies underneath as well. The primitive artist twists and tilts the various possible visual aspects until they fully explain what he wishes to represent….

Electronic circuitry is recreating in us the multidimensional space orientation of the ‘primitive.’

Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village…a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

- From the medium is the MASSAGE, by marshall McLuhan (pp. 44-63)

A couple of things to take from that:

Yes, to some degree, there are different kinds of art for different senses. But its not like painting is for the eyes and music the ears, and since in a piece of architecture you can touch it, see it and hear things, its for the nose, eyes and ears. As McLuhan reveals, the question is more complex than that. As McLuhan says elsewhere, technologies (made things!) are extensions of man. He shapes his tools, and they, in turn, shape him. The art of each age, almost regardless of the medium, will reveal a man who is primarily visual, acoustic, or what have you.

Corbusier spoke of “visual acoustics” when making sense of the relationship between his architecture and his painting. The difference between Gregorian chant and Bach reveals the difference between an acoustic man and a visual man. Synthetic cubism is a bit more acoustic than analytic cubism, which is more visual.

Something else. My dear engineer friend said the following: “if I want to be entertained through my ears, I'll go to a concert…But if visual art is not visually appealing - then is it art?” But Marshall McLuhan rebuts him with this: “Art, or the graphic translation of a culture…” A background piece of factual information to McLuhan’s spiel on the detached observer being born in the Renaissance is that perspective was actually invented in the early Renaissance in Florence, in 1404, by an architect named Brunelleschi. There was no such thing as “entertainment,” even then, but “perspective” set the stage for it. McLuhan says that acoustic space is participatory, but, just the same, it takes a detached, visual man to make detached, visual art. Art is not framed and hung on a wall; art is the embodiment of its culture.

The idea of subjective aesthetic judgment, in contrast to objective truth, also seems to be implied by “if I want to be entertained through my ears, I'll go to a concert…But if visual art is not visually appealing - then is it art?” This is already very long, and can easily be a while other topic. But for this purpose, I will just say that subjective aesthetic judgment would not be possible without disembodied visual observation. Embodied truth is “objective.” The same mathematics that govern the human body give order and beauty to a work of art (again, technologies are the extensions of man).

That is all, then, for the framing of my answer. To actually, then, give my answer, which was partially given in the framing of it:

A book is a piece of art, too. A painting not only stimulates the mind but would be utterly meaningless without it.
The different crafts can’t really be categorically broken up in accordance with a rule that says particular ones belong to particular senses (or faculties).
Art is not detached entertainment, but an embodiment of its culture and a reflection and extension of the man who made it (your house is a work of art just as much as the Van Goh print that hangs on its wall).
The beauty of art lies in the beauty of man and the world, not in “the eye of the beholder” (see the highlighted link).
When art DOES become categorically broken up between the senses, detached entertainment, judged according to subjective aesthetic opinion and devoid of “objective” truth, and primarily visually appealing, then you end up with McArthur Mall (again, see highlighted link).

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